Monthly Archives: August 2013

Travels and Tribulations: Part 4

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Our last stop – Chennai. The sleeper train brought us into the centre of the city at early morning, where we quickly found a hotel to dump our stuff. After an hour’s kip, we caught a local bus to Cholamandal Art Village. The Art Village began and still functions as a cooperative of autonomous and self-funded artists, painting in the style of the Madras School. Turns out this style of painting is meant to focus on the use of line, but from the gallery paintings and industrial bronze conglomerate sculptures, its use varied so widely, I could only see resemblances of cubism and Matisse – not any obvious philosophy linking them together.

Artistic minutia aside, most of the village was closed due to it being off-season, so we flopped on a bench in the cafe area (also closed) to sleep off the heat of the day. Chennai felt so hot after Kerala! With some lunch eaten, and Roy hobbled by oozing blisters (nice) we retreated back to the city, passing expanses of pristine yellow beach and even designated car parks, with benches and proper footpaths and everything you’d not expect to see at the Indian seaside! It made me wish we’d had more time to spend in Chennai.

To the cinema for World War Z in the evening. Then, eating dinner in a little fast food place, one mosque (lit up on front with a picture of another mosque) had started playing music in celebration of the start of Ramzan/Ramadan. It was so loud that the bass was actually shaking the cafe floor. Outside, even the pavement was thrumming under the beat. Thank god our hotel wasn’t nearby.

At 7:30am however, I found out that there was a mosque near the hotel, and they were playing the entire prayers through loudspeakers for over ninety minutes. Topping it off, a little worm wiggled its way out of the shower head, sending Roy into an angry frenzy. Checking out, we spent nearly an hour arguing with the idiot of a desk-jockey manning the night reception. After repeating our complaint too many times to remember, and explaining to him how to use a phone after he pretended not to be able to contact the real manager, Roy’s belligerence finally paid off. The manager pulled in on his scooter, and went with Roy back up to the room, where another worm obligingly plopped out when the shower was switched on. Thanks to my entomologist boyfriend feigning a profession in water quality testing, the manager scurried to return our 1000 rupees for the night. “Madam, please write [on the receipt], ‘No things in water’.” We’d just been bribed!

The happy zoologist

The happy zoologist

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“Om nom nom humans”

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Only the sexiest crocodiles have a blob on their nose

Crocodile Bank, Chennai

Snoozing

The plan was to head a little down the east coast from Chennai to Mahaballipuram, via the Crocodile Bank. Thanks to google maps (and the geographer misreading them) I accidentally took us to a bus stop latitudinally level with our intended destination, but actually 10km in reverse and across by road. Damn those parallel road systems! I avoided being murdered by Roy for making him miss the crocodiles thanks to a good bus service (phew) and spent a happy afternoon wandering around the centre. It was surprisingly well-designed and had little pictograms for each crocodile’s information board. Under food, one of them had a cartoon of a person. Oh dear.

I went to sit by the giant tortoises whilst he wandered around a bit more, and the biggest – which for some reason I automatically assumed was the only male – headed for a bath and promptly got stuck. It was half cute, half pitiful to watch him get more and more panicked as he kept failing to mount the concrete lip round the pool. His [female] companions had no problems, which just embarassed him further. He eventually escaped though, and needed some female attention to nurture his ego back to health.

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The moment of final escape from the pool

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Pretending nothing happened

After watching feeding time for the smaller crocs, where a Caiman Lizard ignored the morsels being thrown to him and went for the whole bucket instead, we made it to Mahaballipuram. The guest house we chose to stay in had been hit by the 2004 tsunami, and it’s top floor was still missing. Our host recounted how he saw the wall of water coming, and simply ran. I can’t imagine the terror he must have felt. He said he was crying the whole time, but they were lucky that the row of hotels, built right on the beach, had slowed most of its progress before hitting the town.

Walking round the sites the next day, it also emerged that the water withdrawn 150m from the shoreline by the tsunami also revealed an entire historic town drowned by the sea. What remained of the site on land was a couple of temples heavily eroded by the salt air, and a small area of rock-carved temples over-run by tango-stealing langurs.

Leaving Roy to woo a goat down at the bottom, I unknowingly took the hard route up some slippery rocks towards the temples, and emerged on top of a huge boulder to find a proper path laid out round the corner. As I came out from behind a boulder teetering near the edge of the face I’d climbed, an Indian guy who thought he was being adventurous nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw me!

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Only remaining temple on the mainland
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Mahabharata (?) carved in stone

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Travelling in style…

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A temple carved out of the solid rock

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Violent stone murals inside

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Another rock-cut temple

Then we got caught by a friendly stone-mason, who of course took us to his shop ‘nearby’. Whether it was the sea air or because we were nearing the end of our trip, I was happy to go along, and ended up buying a carved marble chess board. After an indulgent full body relaxation massage where I was semi-groped by a young Indian girl lying topless on a slab, we sat out on our room’s balcony over the sea. The tide was in, and the spray was actually getting us wet, so we retreated indoors, as a lightning storm flickered off towards the horizon and stole our electricity.

Next morning, we left for our train back to Bangalore, and spent an entire train journey with a TV screen blaring out Tamil and Hindu music videos and serials full of screaming women. Arriving back into Bangalore East Railway Station, the sinking feeling in my stomach was palpable. Walking out of the station gates, the hugest cow I ever saw seemed somehow like an omen – of what I still don’t know.

Roy and I spent the next two days spending all our time together; ordering Chinese, watching films at the flat, and hanging out with my flatmates. On the day of his flight, we joined my flatmates for a disgustingly expensive but fantastic brunch at a fancy restaurant, where oysters sat opposite bagels and macaroons, and where my stomach became disappointingly small. 2 hours of gorging later, and with Maria carrying a different coloured Macaroon between each finger, we hurried back to pack, and leave.

Horrifyingly soon we were in the airport, and I realised it was too soon. I wasn’t ready to let him go. He had to go through the doors eventually though, and the army guards weren’t going to allow me past security. So I watched Roy walk along through the glass doors, and stood there for a little while wondering when I could also go home. Then I got a bus back into Bangalore, to continue where I left off.

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Travels and Tribulations: Part 3

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Waking up to the steady rain of Kochi on the morning of Tuesday 18th June, we caught a ferry across to the old fort for 2.50 rupees. Who ever actually has a 50 paise coin on them? It didn’t matter anyhow seeing as there was two of us.

With ambitious plans in our heads to discover the man-made island in a day, we didn’t arrive at the jetty until lunchtime. As we stood near the eager auto-drivers, I felt a sharp sting on my right shoulder, and turned around to see a huge ant shaped like a spider scuttling away. It was like having a bee sting!

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Feeling sorry for myself, we headed to the Dutch Palace, which turned out to be a hidden gem. Lonely Planet didn’t get it wrong for once! Inside the professionally presented artefacts and information boards covered everything from the rajas outfits and weaponry, to crumbling murals of the Ramayana in the other rooms – including one of a demon having her breasts and nose cut off. Charming.

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Then in a bid to reach a synagogue (I don’t know why it was meant to be special) in ‘Jew Town’, we became distracted by a myriad of emporiums selling leather bags, brass deities, lotus-shaped incense holders, chess boards, and dressing stands. There was even one hoarding a 30m long, 10 year-old Snake Boat – from the still annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where each colossal canoe is powered by 100 men – that dominated the entire shop.

Calling it quits, we grabbed some overpriced tea and cake from a shop-cum-art gallery before heading off to see the Chinese fishing nets. Exhausted, we jumped back on the ferry, and Roy reached new levels of zoologist ecstasy at the giant fruit bats circling round the landing jetty.

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To finish where we left off, the next day saw us back on the ferry to reach the Dutch Cemetery (a let down) and the Maritime Museum (it was closed). Taking shelter from the rain inside a convenient ice-cream parlour, we were treated to an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls. Several Hindu deities were painted in a style that I can only say reminded me of the Disney ‘Hercules’ film – but it worked.

To fulfil our tourist obligation of appreciating the local culture, we ventured to the cultural centre. One and a half hours of Kathakalli Dance later, and we were suitably enlightened, if not very bored. Whilst the fantastical costumes were good to look at, the dance itself revolved entirely around facial gestures, eye movements, and hand positioning. A surprise ending helped wake us up again though, as the female character whipped around screaming and holding her hair on her lip like a moustache. More of that would have been made the whole thing far more interesting!

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We made it to Alleppey the next day, and after some running around managed to secure a houseboat to take us round the slow backwaters that Kerala is so famous for. Converted from old rice barges, these boats ranged from (our) cheap and cheerful single-kitchen-and-bedroom option, to floating palaces with A/C and separate sunbathing areas, not forgetting surround sound home cinema system!

Though it was still raining our 24 hours on the backwaters took us through narrow waterways and huge open lakes; past paddy fields hovering several metres below the canals; around man-made islands where women washed dishes or laundry and men fished; and to an overnight mooring at our captain’s home.

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Jumping between dry patches along the paths almost totally flooded by the monsoon rains, we glimpsed a Snake Boat team drilling for the August race. Roy ‘rescued’ a fish, which turned out to be the supper of two fishermen sat not two metres away. They didn’t manage to catch another one.

Finally, after a delicious dinner cooked by the on-board chef, and a good sleep rocking on the water, we headed to the Funky Art Beach House back on solid land. Not spitting distance from the waves crashing onto the white sandy beach, we spent the next few days lazily meandering up and down the sand, trying each of the different local restaurants, and chasing crabs in the dark on the way back. One morning I woke up to the sound of a gang of scrawny old fishermen heaving their boat towards the shore, and then found a litter of shivering puppies in the sand when I went to investigate!

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Thankfully they were still alive the following morning, sunbathing under the protection of an upturned boat. We ventured into town that afternoon on two bicycles so rickety, their handlebars were both on backwards. Navigating the Indian traffic was actually less terrifying than expected, though I guess it helps when you act like you own the road.

Leaving the relaxation and sea air of Alleppey was hard, but we’d already axed so many places from our original itinerary – Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Park, Madurai, Rameswaram – that it was time to move on. Resigned to sharing a single narrow bunk on the over-booked sleeper train, we started towards Chennai that night. Luck was feeling generous however, and a couple doubled up with their children to give us one each. Not to say that it was any more comfortable though.

Reverse Culture Shock

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Whilst at first the tea tastes watery, the food has no (spice) flavour, and there are too many middle class boys with hipster haircuts overly happy to share their yelled conversations with the street, I am glad to be back. Now that I’m into my fifth day back in England I feel much more at ease with all things England.

High tea

That’s not to say that I didn’t have some problems. Even driving to Bangalore airport at 2am in a taxi on Tuesday morning, a strange nausea started creeping up on me and a dizzying feeling – which I assumed to be the result of hunger (I’m always hungry) and tiredness. After landing and reuniting with my boyfriend however, and with a good night’s sleep, the next day it happened again. We were in one of Woking’s indoor shopping centres when I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. He sat me down in the open cafe area where I felt a little comforted by the sight of a ‘Spice House’, and waited for him to get me something sugary.

Nom nom nom

After wolfing down a Gregg’s doughnut though, I realised it wasn’t just a bout of low blood sugar I periodically experience, but the onset of a growing sense of panic. Everywhere I looked, people were walking around in shorts, and spaghetti strap tops, and bras were hanging out all over the place. Given that it could have been no more than 25 degrees that kind of clothing was clearly absurd.

But it was more than that. I felt suffocated by the silence, the absence of traffic beeping and revving, the empty streets, the conspicuous void of incense-pollution-rotting refuse-cow dung-garam masala mix assaulting the nostrils. It was like being in an alien landscape where all the people had vanished.

Noisy, busy, blissful India

A couple more days in though, and my perception is changing again. Whilst I can’t shake the unsettling sensation that the world before my eyes is a mirage drawn across reality, that Bangalore will re-materialise in due course, it simultaneously feels like I never left. Did I even go to India? Was it all a dream? Though I’m not panicking each time I think about the empty street outside now, and my taste-buds have quickly relished a return to olives, houmous, pizza, and pasta, I’m craving rice and spice, and I’ve been mostly living inside the house of my boyfriend’s parents.

Breathe in that English suburbia

My life is no different being in England. I am still looking for a job, I still too many things to do in inadequately short spaces of time, and I still (apparently) wobble my head all the time. My brother tells me I have an Indian accent – well I pity him for not having one, it’s the best accent in the world.

I think the relative isolation period that I’ve put myself in within the confines of the house is vital to allow my subconcious to adjust. I never fully felt comfortable in India, but I think to some extent I understood it. Whilst I still rail against the misogyny and the corruption, the lack of female autonomy and the stifling social controls on personal movement, I’m finding that home is no longer home. I feel a stranger in my origin culture, and not just at the superficial level. I’m really starting to question the way society is structured in the UK, and gendered behaviours here too. The contrast in how British young men and women behave is too stark against their Indian counterparts not to notice – and I’m not sure I like it anymore. Or perhaps time will erode the harsh edge off my memory, and I’ll quickly come to love my country again.

More than ever though I feel I’ve become part of a British diaspora – a reverse cultural and migrational flow of people, ideals, and values – into modern India. Like anyone whose culture is rooted in one place, as their everyday continues in another, I feel suspended between the two. I cannot go back to being English, but the prejudice and hierarchy of my second home means that neither will I ever become entirely Indian. I want to live in both places, in both cultures, and neither entirely, at the same time. The difficulty lies in negotiating the contradictions between them. What to do, ah? I think several more visits to the land of Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan, for better or worse.